- The Washington Times
Monday, October 21, 2019

You could call it “The Year of Leonsis,” though mathematically it’s a bit of a stretch. The Washington Capitals’ historic Stanley Cup win was 16 months ago, but the list of victories for Monumental Sports and Entertainment grew this October.

Ted Leonsis kicked off the month by formally announcing plans for a sportsbook at Capital One Arena, which is on track to be the first facility of its kind inside a U.S. professional sports venue. Then the Washington Mystics won their first WNBA title — in their new home on the St. Elizabeths Hospital campus that opened last fall — and Bradley Beal signed an extension with the Washington Wizards.

Taken together, it’s been the most high-profile stretch for Monumental since Leonsis founded the company via merger in 2010. But the owner himself sees the championships as a marker for something greater he wants to build within the District.

“It was just wonderful to see this plan come together and it reinforces to our organization that if we do the right things in the right way, we can bring the community closer together,” Leonsis said. “We did it around Capital One Arena with the Caps. Now we did it in Greater Washington in the new St. E’s facility.”

Most team owners can’t lay claim to two championships in two years, especially in two different sports. What’s left might be Monumental’s biggest challenge of all.

The Wizards‘ only NBA title came in 1978 when they were the Washington Bullets, and the franchise hasn’t won 50 games in a season since. National media have taken to using them as a punchline. But Leonsis believes it’s their turn to follow what their sister and brother teams accomplished.

“What the players and the organization need to internalize is that it is doable,” Leonsis said. “We can believe in the formula because we’ve seen it work and we’ve seen how we turned around, if you will, both the Mystics and the Capitals … Now we have to focus on how we can do the same kind of development to win a championship at the Washington Wizards.”

Beal signed a two-year, $72 million extension with the Wizards Thursday, taking a major trade target off the market for now. Last season, Leonsis made clear that he abhors the idea of tanking to set up a rebuild, and shipping Beal out of town for a haul of draft picks would have rendered the 2019-2020 team rudderless.

Now, the Wizards will attempt once more to build a roster around John Wall, once he returns from his Achilles injury, and Beal.

Leonsis had breakfast with Beal’s agent Mark Bartelstein early last week, not long after general manager Tommy Sheppard also met with Bartelstein. Leonsis seems to have sold Bartelstein and Beal on the vision he has for the Wizards‘ rebuild, a grandiose plan launched in July with the synergy-minded restructuring of “Monumental Basketball.”

On Beal’s part, it’s a major sign of commitment to a team that pundits don’t give much of a chance to make the playoffs this year. Beal expressed confidence in Leonsis‘ plan, crediting the owner’s actions over his words.

“Anybody can say anything. Can you show it? Can you prove it?” Beal said. “And Ted’s reorganized this entire basketball organization from the top down. That in itself shows his commitment. He’s made changes around here, just small things. Made changes in the staff … You have to tip your hat off to it because he didn’t sit on his hands.”

Leonsis holds an annual preseason meeting to talk to the entire Wizards organization. At this year’s meeting, he said he brought a box of rings — including not just the Capitals’ Stanley Cup ring, but championship rings won by their AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears; the Washington Valor of the Arena Football League; and even by one of Leonsis’s esports ventures, Team Liquid, for its “Dota 2” championship. (The Mystics’ ring is still being designed.)

“I said to the Wizards, the whole organization, our singular focus is to do what we did for every one of those other teams and leagues and communities, now with the Wizards,” Leonsis said.

A believer in synergy and “cross-learning,” Leonsis hopes Monumental Basketball creates a closer partnership between the Wizards and G League affiliate Capital City Go-Go, in the same vein that the Bears’ success contributed to “organizational belief” in the Capitals.

To Leonsis, the formula also calls for “winning with a higher calling in mind.” He delights in celebrating the charitable work done by Mystics stars Natasha Cloud and Elena Delle Donne. Beal, Wall and new Wizard Isaiah Thomas all have won the NBA Cares Community Assist Award honoring their philanthropic activity.

“We also believe that one connects with the other, that if we have great people who are connected to the community, it’ll translate up to us winning. And if we’re winning, we can leverage that glow, if you will, to shine it on the community on an ongoing basis,” Leonsis said.

As the Washington Nationals embark on their first World Series, the District is four wins away from becoming the country’s next “Titletown.” Leonsis attended Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, in part to support the Lerner family, which owns the Nationals and a minority stake in Monumental.

When Leonsis tried to visit the men’s room during the game, he said Nationals fans kept stopping him for high-fives and pictures. Perhaps one of those Washingtonians also wanted to ask Leonsis to buy the woeful Redskins from Dan Snyder and turn that team around too. But Leonsis said the fans only had positive comments — and that his focus is on Monumental.

“Dan, when we won the Stanley Cup, wrote me a very nice personal note and sent me a big bottle of Champagne,” Leonsis said. “He’s always been very, very gracious and supportive of us, and I look forward to reciprocating when they win a Super Bowl.”

Though he made it to that Nationals game, Leonsis was notably absent from Game 5 of the WNBA Finals when the Mystics defeated the Connecticut Sun to clinch their first title. A spokesperson said Leonsis was in London, where his daughter lives, for a previously scheduled family commitment at the time.

That missed game aside, Leonsis is no absentee WNBA owner. New league commissioner Cathy Englebert has been impressed with his support and desire to give a greater platform for women’s sports.

“He and I and others were frustrated around, why don’t we have a better revenue model?” Englebert said. “Why don’t we have more sponsorships? Why don’t our players have more endorsement opportunities? … It’s all these things that Ted sees and I see so clearly — the opportunity and the upside of supporting women’s basketball and the WNBA and women’s sports in society more broadly.”

Only time will tell if the Wizards can copy what the Mystics achieved. Nobody expects it to happen this year, not with Wall sidelined for several months. But if the Monumental Basketball model someday does lead the Wizards all the way back to the playoffs and into the NBA Finals on a Mystics-esque or even Nationals-esque run, Leonsis will hold it up as one more thing Washingtonians can revel in together.

“That’s what we try to impart to the players and the organization,” Leonsis said. “The role that we can play in this community is unbelievably meaningful, and it’s not just about basketball. It’s not just about hockey. It’s not just about getting the ring. It’s making these lifelong memories.”

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